The Enterprise Incident

Did longtime controller Thomas Dunn get dumped by the rental car company because he was a whistleblower -- or a blowhard?

At first blush, it sounds like a classic David-and-Goliath match.

A former controller sues his ex-employer, a corporate giant, for wrongful termination. He wants $5 million in damages including damage to his reputation and loss of employment prospects. But when that controller is described by numerous witnesses as “tyrannical,” “overbearing,” and prone to “misrepresenting” facts — with seemingly few supporters in his stable — the crystal clear picture becomes fuzzy.

Thomas Dunn is suing Enterprise Rent-A-Car for wrongful termination. Dunn was dismissed by the car-rental company (where he earned $650,000 as VP and controller) shortly after a 90-day probation period. He contends that Enterprise fired him because he had objected to certain accounting practices connected with the public offering the company was planning. That deal was ultimately shelved.

For its part, Enterprise management denies all allegations and says Dunn was dismissed for his poor management style, which it claims was disrupting the team culture. The trial, entering week four Monday, has been followed by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

According to the newspaper’s reports, Dunn testified that Enterprise dumped him after 14 years because he refused to go along with accounting practices for the IPO. Yet he also reportedly said that others who shared his dissent were not shown the door by management. In fact, one of them, auditor Steven Brackney of Ernst & Young, was hired to replace Dunn. The other, Byron Trott of underwriter Goldman Sachs & Co., was eventually appointed to Enterprise’s corporate advisory board.

But Dunn claims that his written performance reviews from Enterprise leading up to his probation mentioned nothing about personality or management style. According to the Post-Dispatch, Dunn testified further that his boss, then CFO John O’Connell, never mentioned complaints about Dunn by other employees in the year-and-a-half between his last evaluation and his probation.

When O’Connell took the stand, reports thePost-Dispatch, he acknowledged that he did not include the negative feedback in his human-resources file — but only because, after all, nobody pays attention to the paperwork. “The personnel file is not some important thing in our organization,” he told the court.

O’Connell, who became vice president at sister company Centric in April 2002, testified that in fact he tried to work with Dunn on his management skills. It surprised him, O’Connell said, when CEO Andrew Taylor told him he wanted to fire Dunn, citing complaints about him from other executives.

He persuaded Taylor to give Dunn one more chance, then met with Dunn to tell him he had to change his behavior. According to the Post-Dispatch, a memo for that meeting showed O’Connell describing Dunn’s management style as “somewhere on the continuum from overbearing to dictatorial to tyrannical.”

O’Connell also asserted that in his discussions with four other Enterprise executives at the time of Dunn’s dismissal, no on mentioned Dunn’s accounting objections.

Meanwhile, other witnesses have collectively portrayed Dunn as unlikable at best and untrustworthy at worst, according to reports in the Post-Dispatch. Last week, five former subordinates testified against him.

Two said they transferred out of the accounting department because of Dunn. One called him a “controlling and manipulative” manager; another said he was a slave driver, pressuring his team to work nights and weekends. Two others said they left the company because they were unhappy and felt Dunn was hindering their career progress. Another said Dunn rejected opinions that differed with his, disparaged employees, and couldn’t get along with other department heads.

Later in the week, other managers testified that they questioned Dunn’s integrity, says the Post-Dispatch. One note in an audit report suggested that Dunn had misrepresented conversations with other executives for the benefit of his department.

As for the allegations of improper accounting: even that has appeared to backfire on Dunn. Earlier in the trial, Professor James Jennings of St. Louis University, said that Enterprise’s treatment of depreciation of its vehicles violated generally accepted accounting principles — even while Dunn was working there, according to the Post-Dispatch.

The testimony appeared to be a surprise from Jennings, an expert witness for the Dunn camp, who had earlier said in a deposition that financial statements under Dunn’s watch were proper.

Meanwhile, Post-Dispatch reported that Enterprise attorneys have suggested that Dunn had never really been a whistleblower, only bringing up the allegations after his dismissal. “You never felt an ethical obligation at any time you were at Enterprise to speak out?” one Enterprise lawyer questioned. Reportedly, Dunn said no.

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